Why Rugby Australia must hit reset button to save Wallabies
Reset. The word was written in capitals on the strapping of Noah Lolesio’s left wrist as a reminder of what to do if things went wrong at Eden Park. Little did he realise that before the weekend was out, Australian rugby – and the game globally – would also be reaching for the reset button.
The decision by Rugby Australia to re-examine the “Giteau Law” is huge and yet somehow not surprising. The selection situation has been evolving rapidly in recent years. While my fear has always been that Australia’s Super Rugby teams could be decimated if there is no incentive for players to remain at home, the fact is the Wallabies are taking a fearful hit because hundreds of Australians play abroad.
The idea that Rory Arnold, Adam Coleman, Tolu Latu, Samu Kerevi and Kurtley Beale will return from their overseas clubs to rescue the Wallabies is an appealing fantasy. These same footballers were part of Australia’s 2019 World Cup campaign and had plenty of opportunities to show what they could do. The Wallabies still exited the tournament in the quarter-finals.
Will Skelton wasn’t even there, despite numerous, inventive attempts to lure him back. Australians will just have to accept that some players – especially those with an extended family to care for – are less motivated by the gold jersey than others.
Yet there is an upside to freeing up the selection laws. Australia pays out $1 million a year to captain Michael Hooper, money well spent judging by his form. Kerevi cost about $800,000 a season, so too Marika Koriobete. That’s money the Australian game doesn’t have. But as Sonny Bill Williams has argued, what if the wages bill was picked up by foreign clubs? The players could still answer the Wallabies’ SOS but RA’s sole responsibility would be limited to paying match fees.
The money allocated to salaries could be redirected to a third tier competition. “Third tier competition” in Australian rugby is pretty much the equivalent of the “third rail” in American politics – anyone who touches it, dies. But with the Shute Shield abandoned for the year and club rugby generally in no-man’s land, a two-level Australian club championship – based primarily around the Sydney and Brisbane clubs, supplemented by the best sides from Canberra, Melbourne and Perth – is desperately needed.
Will Harrison, left, will not play an official match again until February.Credit:Getty
The only players presently seeing action are in the Wallabies. For the rest – the likes of Carter Gordon, Liam Wright and Will Harrison – their next official match won’t be until February. Their Kiwi counterparts will continue through October, further widening the gap on Australia at Super Rugby and Test level. Oh yes, there will be ways to spend that surplus money.
One final word. Once overseas clubs realise their Wallabies stars can now be whisked away for Test duty, they will be less inclined to chase them. Over time, it could ease the strain on Australia’s playing resources.
Meanwhile, it has taken a series defeat to the Springboks to motivate the British and Irish Lions into doing something about the fact that power has taken over the game. With half the starting side able to be replaced, fatigue has effectively been taken out of the equation. I have long argued that having eight reserves is a betrayal of rugby’s mantra of being a game for all shapes and sizes.
These lobbyists form World Rugby president Bill Beaumont’s natural constituency. That pretty much ensures action will be taken and rugby again will become 15 on 15, not 23 on 23.
Meanwhile, at Eden Park, the match was barely three minutes old before Lolesio, having given away seven points to an intercept try, was referring to his wrist notes. Reset.
Once again, the Wallabies over-reached themselves, trying to play a skill-based game without the requisite level of skill. At the same time, their basic appreciation of the game was flawed. Whatever happened to the blindside winger covering in defence whenever the fullback joined the attack?
Australia must again learn the painful lessons of defeat. But it can’t allow its rugby decisions to be distorted by its proximity to the strongest team on the planet. No other nation has done better against the All Blacks in the professional era, no one has a better win record at home against them. Only England have a superior record against New Zealand over the past decade. The world champion Springboks match Australia’s win percentage.
Australia’s world ranking suffers grievously from playing the All Blacks more than anyone else. But that is no reason to avoid them.
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